The Cornered Cat
Yeowch…? Small guns and new shooters

A lot of times what happens is this: in the gunstore, small guns feel pretty good in most people’s hands. New shooters aren’t (as) scared of small guns, because they seem so cute and non-intimidating. Plus of course, when you’re shopping for a concealed carry gun, the smaller guns are much easier to conceal and lighter to carry.

So… small gun it is. Maybe even a super-small, tiny gun.

Fast forward to range day, taking the new little gun out to shoot for the first time. Beginner does not have any standard of comparison, hasn’t shot other guns. But once on the range, this non-intimidating, cute little gun suddenly turns into a monster that hurts the shooter’s hand. With every shot, the gun sharply recoils and jumps around in the shooter’s hand.


Pretty soon, the beginner is wincing with every shot (not so good for marksmanship). You see them rubbing the pain out of the shooting hand between magazines and picking the gun up gingerly, in a loose and reluctant grip. Unfortunately, the looser a person holds the gun, the worse the recoil problem becomes — think of the difference in power and pain between a ‘punch’ (a shove, really) that starts with the fist right up against the victim’s shoulder, compared to a powerful punch that comes from a foot away.

In any case, it isn’t long before the new shooter with the tiny gun is wondering whether shooting is really¬†right for them. Maybe they can take up knitting instead…?

Enter a more experienced shooter, who sees the problem and suggests a move to a different gun. The beginner often resists moving to a larger gun, because people (wrongly) intuit that larger guns will kick harder. So when a helpful friend offers to let the new shooter try something a little larger that they believe will be more comfortable, the new shooter isn’t sure that’s a good idea.

The new shooter intuitively suspects that shooting a larger gun will be scarier and more painful than shooting the little gun. But it’s not necessarily so.

Physics trumps intuition, though. And physics tells us that the larger and heavier the launching platform, the less that platform will react when something pushes against it. So when a larger and heavier gun shoots the same caliber as a smaller and lighter gun, the larger gun will produce less felt recoil for the shooter, and will tend to move around less when the bullet goes.

Not only this, but physics also tells us that the more surface area the object puts up against our skin, the less we will feel (or be damaged by) whatever movement is there. Think about an equally-strong ‘push’ against the skin on your hand with a small object such as a sewing needle compared to a larger object such as a telephone. You can push the phone into your hand pretty hard without it hurting, but the needle will first hurt and then damage you. Same thing with guns — a gun with a narrow, small grip will feel like it’s producing more recoil than a gun with a wide grip that distributes the pressure more evenly on your hand, even when the guns themselves weigh the same and are shooting the same type of ammunition.

Of course we have to balance this against finding a gun that fits the hand well (here’s an article about gun fit for those who are interested).

For all these reasons, my basic advice on gun selection for beginners these days is to choose a gun that:

  1. fits your hand well enough to let you reach and manipulate all the controls,
  2. comes in a standard self defense caliber,
  3. is as small as it needs to be for your concealed carry needs but no smaller, and
  4. has a solid reputation for sturdy long-term reliability.

One Response to Yeowch…? Small guns and new shooters

  1. larryarnold says:


    Sorry for shouting, but I run into it consistently.
    “It’s small, it’s cute, it’ll be fun to shoot.”
    “The best gun for a new shooter is a small, lightweight .38.”

    Then said new shooter tries to pass the 50-round license to carry practical with an unobtanium 1″ revolver. Ouch.

    I just wrapped a “Buying Your First Handgun” class I offer. It’s two hours of classroom and two hours shooting different handguns. We work up from .22 to (if the shooter wants the bragging rights) .44 Magnum. Most students are now looking for a medium-size 9mm or .38, and not because that’s what I pushed.

    I actually start with four secrets. (Which are “secret” because we know them so well we forget to relate them to new shooters.)
    1. For the same caliber, the heavier a gun is the less it will kick.
    2. The further the sights are apart, the more accurate the gun will shoot.
    3. The better your hand fits the grip, the easier the gun will be to shoot.
    4. If you only have one gun, it needs to fit different roles, like self-defense balanced with practice.

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